Thinking about things

Jonathan Edwards, in his Freedom of the Will, wrote that “Many particular things may concur and unite their strength to induce the mind; and when it is so, all together are as it were one complex motive” (Yale edition, 1.2—p. 141). Let me chase Edwards’ point: how is it that a host of “particular things” shape each of our daily decisions?

To begin I think it’s fair to say that whenever we face a decision we become aware of our internal processing as reflected in comments like, “let me think about that for a minute”. Our pause plays an important role in reaching the decision. But what are we really doing when we pause?

The rational option. One assumption about such reflective moments is that we always begin with relative neutrality or indifference when we make decisions. Thus we need to think objectively about all the possible outcomes of the options before us. It’s as if we have a clean sheet to write on as we make the decision; so our mind needs time to chart out the options. The wise person is one who can think clearly, effectively, and comprehensively about all the possible implications of the decision.

The volitional option. Another assumption about our decision-making is that we all start from a state of relative inertia when we make decisions. The idea is that we are faced with a call to move—whether intellectually, physically, or both—from where we are at the present moment to a new location, so we need to muster the energy to start that movement. From this perspective the question of options—of thinking through what we might do—is only secondary to our need to “get going” with one of the new options before us. So the decisive person is less prone to ponder and more prone to act quickly and strongly to embrace whatever option looks most credible.

Both the rational and the volitional models presume a starting point of personal independence. There is another approach—the affective or response-based view—that presumes a personal dependence on others in all decisions.

The affective option. This third decision-making paradigm is heart-based and relational in its orientation. In a given moment of decision our souls are neither neutral nor suffering from inertia. Instead any decision amounts to a call for redirection away from some current values—our present affections—that are already in play.

Our “thinking”, then, is a process of comparing how much we might “like” the new option in light of what we already want. The process is rational in the sense that our reasoning processes must consult our hearts about where our strongest desires lie—desires formed in earlier emotional contexts—so the mind probes the past for insights about what to do next.

In this portrayal of the soul the mind is never the source of our motivations, only a processor of our heart values. That is, the mind rationalizes how any new desires are now to be portrayed as more valuable than what we once wanted. It explains our love.

And any sense of a volitional need to “get going” is illusory because we’re already going somewhere. The real question is whether where we once wanted to go can withstand the competition of a new affection. Hearts are slow in giving up old affections but are always prepared to sample new desires. Which aligns with the warning in Proverbs 4:23 to “Guard your heart with all vigilance for from it flow the springs of life.”

The question, then, of Edwards’ notion of how “particular things” shape each of our daily decisions can be answered as if we were not heart-based beings but beings who are morally and affectively neutral; or who always operate as self-starters without any prior desires that shape our choices. Or we can see ourselves as responders either to God’s love or to a love of the world in each moment of life.

Jesus answered the debate at a number of points. Let me cite just one text in concluding. Jesus (in John 8: 31-59) told a group of free will advocates that, “your will is to do your father’s desires” and thus they were each “a slave to sin” because they lacked any love for Jesus: “If God were your father you would love me.”

So as we make decisions our inward processing is oriented either by a delight in God who loves Jesus; or by a desire to be like god ourselves which is the sole alternative trajectory for making decisions. Each decision is relational and calls us to ponder which relationship we may want to enhance, and how those bonds can grow.

Think about it!



  1. chris laird

    Thank you Ron, That is a really helpful description of the Gospel of the heart set free (“affective” alternative to life). I would add that your final statement re. a self-referencing approach vs. a Christ (God’s love) oriented approach, is a not a neutral or “free choice.” The natural man will always choose to live and think and act as though he were a fully autonomous “thinking thing” (as Bohnoeffer says, “as his own origin”). Even though God has broken down this state of alienation (Rom. 5:5) the world (including the Church) continues to affirm the rational and volitional approach over the affective. We must preach in such a way that we call people out of this darkness of rationalism, moralism and pragmatism. The gospel includes the fulfillment of the miracle of Jer. 31:31 and Ezek. 36:26 – the restoration of a heart restored and alive to God!

  2. Rick

    Ron- excellent post! Having read Edwards Freedom of the Will and Chalmer’s The Expulsive Power of a New Affection – I agree whole-heartedly with the affections/desires/heart root of decison making. Something I wrestle with – How do you view the scriptures related to our minds (be transformed by the renewing of our minds, think on these things)? Do you see them as imperatives that are followed (obeyed) because there is a desire to be ‘transformed’ which is greater than another competing desire (i.e. love of self)?

  3. Rick

    Ron – another thought/question: do you view desires as springing from nature – for example, as a believer I am united to Christ, indwelt by His spirit (holy Spirit), a new creature in Christ etc. So when I follow desires that are in keeping with that relationship (or springing forth from who I am in Christ), they are God-glorifying and for my good. But this side of eternity I also wrestle with the ‘old man’, remaining sin, the ‘flesh’, which is influenced by the ‘world’ and the devil. So when I follow the desires of the flesh or old man I am serving myself. So if (at any given moment)the desire of who I am as a new creature in Christ is greater than the desire of the ‘flesh’, I will choose that which is in keeping with the Spirit (or walk or live according to the Spirit – Gal.) Is this how you see it? Is this idea of nature in keeping with your reference above to the encounter between Jesus and the ‘free will advocates’?

  4. R N Frost

    Thanks for the responses here. And let me respond to you, Rick, in an all too brief couple of comments.

    Chris noted the importance of Romans 5:5 (and the covenantal promise of a new heart in Jeremiah & Ezekiel) which sets up a proper response to the question about how Paul calls for us to be transformed by the renewing of our minds (in Romans 12:1-3). We need to stay with Paul’s progression as he starts with the Spirit’s role (ch. 5) in pouring God’s love out in our hearts. That allows us to turn from slavery-to-the-flesh as we set our minds on the Spirit (who is still pouring out God’s love in our hearts); and we are reminded that nothing can separate us from this love (Ro. 8). And with that as our new way of viewing life we are called a transforming new way of viewing things (Ro. 12) which includes displacing moralism with a devotion of love (Ro. 13).

    The point of all this is that we no longer look to our own autonomous ‘capacity’ to be good; rather we are captured by Christ who offers us his heart and ways to carry us forward to a changed life. The power of change comes in who he is . . . not in what we try to become.

  5. Clive

    Curious to hear your response.
    Do you see “choice” as affective, cognitive, or volitional.
    I think this might help your readers.

  6. R N Frost

    So, Clive, are you suggesting that I needed to firmly declare the third element of my three options as “the winner”? OK, let me be clearer: I believe the affections guide our thinking and choosing. But the point was to invite readers to “think about things”.

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